World’s first anti-HIV gel enters trial phase

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Dr Peter Gichuhi Mwethera, director of Medical Africa Limited, in 2017. He is the primary inventor of the gel. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP

A gel developed in Kenya that can kill the Aids-causing virus is entering a critical trial phase, with at least Sh200 million spent on it in the past 11 years.

Patented in 2007, UniPron has been found to not only act against HIV but can also be used to protect against pregnancy by killing sperms and as a lubricant.

The drug developed at the Institute of Primate Research (IPR), a State agency, is now set for the final human clinical trials, according to principal investigator Peter Gichuhi Mwethera.

INNOVATION

“For the next and final phase, we have put together a strong team of academics, clinicians, investors and marketers,” says Dr Mwethera, whose team was early this year awarded in London for the innovation.

Dr Kavoo Linge, a consultant gynaecologist at Nairobi Hospital and the clinical adviser to the project, said they are already seeking ethical and statutory approvals for the proposed trials. “We are in discussions with several institutions with the requisite capacity and knowledge to carry out human clinical trials of the highest quality and ethical standards,” he said

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If the human trials are successful, Kenya could be the first country in the world to put an effective anti-HIV microbicide in the market.

A microbicide, according to the World Health Organisation, is a substance applied inside the vagina or rectum to reduce the transmission of sexually transmitted infections, including HIV.

Though currently such an applicable microbicide does not exist, one way it would work is by maintaining an acidic environment to protect against infection.

UniPron, explains Dr Mwethera, the primary inventor, has lemon juice and other elements.

ACIDIC

“It works by lowering and stabilising the environment at levels that are too acidic for HIV to survive,” he says.

The same acidic levels do not allow sperm to survive, hence its ability as a contraceptive.

Dr Mwethera explained that they have published 25 papers in peer reviewed scientific journals on UniPron, as well as generated one PhD and two Masters students.

UniPron, a winner of the 2019 Kenya National Innovation Agency/Newton Fund Award, was in February among innovations from across the world showcased at the entrepreneurial mentorship programme organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering in London.

In 2015, UniPron won the Tony Elumelu Entrepreneurship Award and Africa Union Innovation Award in 2013.

“This is a product with global potential,” said Mr Stuart Nicol, an investment adviser who is consulting on UniPron for the UK’s Royal Academy of Engineering.

UNIPRON

Mr Nicol was in Nairobi recently to discuss the possibility of manufacturing UniPron in the UK for the American and European markets.

“While UniPron has huge potential, for the time being it may be much easier to market two of its by-products that are already in the market to investors in Europe,” Mr Nicol told the Sunday Nation.

Because of the huge resources and long periods required to successfully develop and commercialise such a research product, Dr Hastings Ozwara, director IPR, said they had to think out of the box.

“Our biggest problem, like, thousands of other innovators in Kenya, was how to move the research from laboratory to the market — crossing what is called the valley of death,” said Dr Ozwara.

CLINICAL TRIALS

They then decided to develop UniPron’s lubrication potential separately because it did not require lengthy human clinical trials, unlike for contraceptives or a HIV-killing drug.

In 2010, working with Universal Corporation, a local pharmaceutical manufacturer, the scientists put two products in the market: Smugel lubricating gel and Smuscan ultrasound gel.

“But the ultimate prize is UniPron as an anti-HIV microbicide and contraceptive,” said Prof Isaac Macharia, a senior medical consultant and adviser to the project.